Lost and found on the way to a new reality
In her memoir All Things Consoled, Elizabeth Hay grapples with the decline of her parents — her mother a late-life artist, her father an ambitious teacher — and her own shift from ‘difficult child’ to caregiver when she and her husband Mark move them to O
My parents left their beloved home on January 24th, 2009. The frenzied lead-up to their departure reminded me of the flight into Egypt, except that Mary had misplaced her son and was desperate to find him.
While we filled a few suitcases to take on the small plane to Ottawa, while my brother Stu scheduled the moving truck and sorted belongings, while my mother’s knee remained “nice and quiet,” according to the surgeon, thus allowing her to travel — while all this was going on, she searched obsessively for two things: the slide she’d had made of the small black-and-white snap- shot from 1952 of our brother Al, fishing, and the enlargement made from the slide.
“Where might they be?” I asked my father. “Have you seen them?” “In her head,” was his answer. On the eve of our departure, I went out into her studio to make another search and paused for a moment to take stock of everything and appreciate it for the last time: the huge canvases leaning against walls and stacked on shelves; the oversized easel; the big canvas-covered, paint-bespattered table, one end of which was covered with a sheet of glass; the several stained lab coats, hanging from a hook by the small sink, that she wore over her clothes while she worked; the many tubes of paint in margarine tubs; the puddles of paint in the hollows of muffin tins. I took in the enormity of the enterprise. My mother had kept it up, this mighty effort, for over 40 years. “I don’t think anybody has worked harder,” my sister said to me once. And not for money either. From the show that marked her 80th birthday, a show that sold well, she earned $700 after expenses. The gallery owner charged her for the framing and half the cost of the flyers, and took half the price of every painting sold. Three years of work, she said to me.
It was a cold day, and that night the temperature dropped even lower. We got ourselves to bed, my mother in the spare room, me in the adjoining one, my father across the hall, Stu downstairs in the study. (Stu would drive the three of us to the airport the next afternoon, then return to the house and begin the job of emptying it.) After midnight, noises from the kitchen woke me, and I went out to discover my hungry mother on the prowl for non-existent rhubarb and salmon. Soon my father joined us, and in our pyjamas we had a Horlicks picnic, drinking the hot, soothing malted drink and eating cookies.
We sat on mismatched stools at the wide island of a countertop, my father on the tall wooden stool, me on the metal folding stool, my mother on the seat of her walker. The kitchen was steeped in hard work, frugality, prosperity, memories. Over the years, as the family grew in size, each grandchild’s face was added to the rogues’ gallery of snapshots on either side of the door leading into the dining room, until the walls were blanketed with the past and future.
Over his Horlicks my father confessed to an episode he said would follow him to the grave: he had failed to pay a parking fine incurred at the hospital. “So we have to leave town,” he said, giving us a good laugh.
I said, “Tomorrow Mark will be waiting for us at the airport with open arms.”
My mother said, “I borrow his arms first.”
We put our mugs beside the sink and went back to bed and for a while we slept. Before dawn sounds from the kitchen woke me again, and I went out to find my mother on her walker, heading toward the back door.
“I’m just heading out to find that photo of Al,” she said over her shoulder.
She was in her nightgown, a sweater thrown over her shoulders, tiny, stooped, hell-bent.
“Mom, we looked yesterday and the day before, and it’s not there.” I took her hands and kissed and wept and laughed into them. I dissuaded her, convinced that the photo existed in the same deluded world as the salmon and rhubarb.
All that morning we toiled away. At lunch we sat at the dining room table, the last occasion we were ever to do so. Then early in the afternoon, an hour and a half before we were to leave for the airport, I was startled to see on the kitchen counter a lone photographic slide, and paper-clipped to one corner, a slip of scrap paper that said “Young Al Fishing.”
Stu, thorough and undramatic, had found it in the hand-held slide viewer in the studio, the one mended with Scotch tape, a place I had never thought to look.
Holding it up to the kitchen window, I saw my brother Al with his famous fishing pole extended over the water. There was a slide, after all.
Now — finally heeding my mother — I helped her down the stairs to her studio once again, where she darted this way and that on her cane, sorting through paintings, far more organized in her mind than I had given her credit for being.
“Ah, I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said. “I want to finish that. That is a must. Then the three with the abandoned church — or house — the hill that goes up beside the tree. It’s going to be called ‘Abandoned. St. Kilda.’ Now where is the — That’s number one and two of the sawmill, and that’s three, unfinished. And that’s St. Kilda. I’ve got that drawing too. I wonder where it is. There it is, there it is. Let’s get it out to the front. Then there’s the other one. No. There it is. That’s the fourth one. And five is our little guy. Those are the five I want to get finished.”
She stood still. “I don’t know how I’ll do it where I’ll be living.”
I stood beside her in the full knowledge that she never would. In Ottawa they would have a onebedroom suite with space for nothing more than a small worktable. I didn’t say anything and neither did she. On our left the big windows were dotted here and there with coloured decals to divert songbirds away from the glass. Winter light poured in and sifted over everything.
Excerpted from All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir.
Copyright 2018 by Elizabeth Hay. Published by Mcclelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher.
All rights reserved.
Al Hay fishing in 1952.